Hannah Payne, MJLST Staffer
In 2013, Minnesota’s legislature opened the way for certain solar projects with the passage of the Community Solar Garden Program. The program requires Xcel Energy to purchase the energy created by Community Solar Gardens (“CSGs”) that are under a certain generation capacity. CSGs represent a middle ground between residential rooftop solar and large-scale, utility-owned solar. The idea is that medium-sized solar arrays are built in or near communities by developers, local residents buy subscriptions, and then the utility buys the energy from the array and credits the resident subscribers’ accounts. Solar developers sell subscriptions by highlighting the chance to save money and help the environment.
CSGs have been controversial since the inception of the program. Along with the significant growth of CSGs in Minnesota have come concerns about the sales practices of developers, who have been accused of misrepresenting the certainty of profit or stage of project development. The Attorney General warns consumers to “make sure they fully understand a subscription agreement and carefully consider whether they are willing to commit to its terms.” Opponents also decry that the majority of the capacity – 90% – of CSGs is purchased by commercial and other non-residential customers, undercutting the idealistic image of CSGs bringing renewable energy tangibly closer to communities. However, CSG advocates point out that the vast number of subscribers – 92% – are actually residential; they just use less energy than commercial customers.
At the heart of the controversy is the price issue. Opponents of the CSG program, including Xcel, say that it is far cheaper to produce solar energy in a large-scale setting. Xcel recently committed to going 100% carbon-free by 2050, and is likely focused on building renewable capacity efficiently. On the other side, proponents claim that Xcel’s lack of tolerance for competition has resulted in the undervaluation of CSGs because the social benefits and avoided costs have been ignored.
In any case, the CSG program looks poised to undergo change this year; several CSG bills have been introduced in the legislature. Senator Mike Goggin, a nuclear plant manager at Xcel, has proposed total repeal of the CSG program. Another bill would require Public Utilities Commission approval of CSG projects and cap the amount of capacity that may be built within the program annually at 25 Megawatts (there is currently no limit). Other proposals aim to improve developer sales practices, one listing detailed disclosures to be required in promotional materials, another calling for the state’s Clean Energy Resource Team partnership to develop a “disclosure checklist” for developers. Yet another bill would fund a study of “economic benefits to farmers” to investigate if the CSG program may be tweaked to be more farmer-friendly.
Minnesota is a national leader when it comes to CSGs; many will be watching to see how the legislation develops. As Xcel and others get more serious about renewable energy, conversations and controversies around renewables can only be expected to increase. Watching a debate like this unfold is a great way to keep a finger on the pulse of the energy world in this exciting time.